This is part of our Emergency Community Support Fund series, showcasing how the $350 million federal funding program is supporting vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

As vaccinations start to roll in across Canada, it’s becoming easier and easier to see the end of COVID-19. However, the impacts of the pandemic go beyond the virus itself — and one major issue has been the rise of gender-based violence. 

Even before the pandemic, half of all women in Canada reported having been victim to at least one case of assault — and approximately every six days, one woman in Canada is killed by an intimate partner. Due to COVID-19 safety precautions, victims have been forced to stay at home, spending lockdown in an abusive household, and with reduced access to services. 

To help organizations supporting vulnerable populations during the pandemic, Community Foundations of Canada granted almost 5,000 projects funding from the Emergency Community Support Fund (ECSF). More than 300 of these projects are directly addressing the issue of gender-based violence.

More Hands on Deck 

One of these organizations is the Lloydminster Sexual Assault Services (LSAS). Based in Saskatchewan, LSAS provides support to individuals and families who have experienced sexual violence, exploitation, or bullying.

During COVID-19, LSAS’ staff have been working around the clock, with an ever-growing waitlist for crisis intervention and counseling services. “Even speaking to the last three months of our fall quarter (in 2020), the numbers are much higher than they were in previous years,” says community initiatives director, Heather Sinfield.

Following COVID-19 guidelines, LSAS reduced the number of staff in its building. “We have switched to virtual or phone sessions for the majority of the COVID pandemic,” Sinfield explains. For the staff that were in the building, “only one (staff member) could conduct sessions in a safe space that was sanitized, so there’s a longer wait between sessions.”

With ECSF funding, LSAS was able to add a full-time crisis interventionist to its team. “It allows us to address some of those crisis intakes that are being assessed when they do come in,” Sinfield says, allowing the organization to help clients at a faster pace. As well as this, the funding helped LSAS train staff “to be able to take crisis calls, to reduce some of that wait list looking into the future, too.”

Write Your Own Story 

In Toronto, nonprofit Diaspora Dialogues (DD) supports emerging writers to transform their skills into a career, guided by established industry professionals. “We work with writers to match them in mentorship to help develop their own voice and tell their stories,” says president and founder, Helen Walsh. “We really focus as an organization on creating safe spaces to explore difficult topics.”

Using funding from ECSF, DD created a specialized creative writing mentorship program for racialized women and girls who are dealing with domestic violence. “The vast majority of the people we work with are telling difficult stories — they’re telling stories about racial inequality, immigration and (being) refugees, stories of abuse and violence. Gender-based violence has always been a part of what we do.”

DD used the ECSF funding to pay the program mentors and workshop hosts, which included Joanne Vannicola, emmy-award winning actor and writer. “It’s incredibly moving, the power of helping others — first by sharing your own story, and then second, helping (emerging writers) find their own voice and their own story,” Walsh says.

Building Back Better

For CFC, it was vital that all ECSF-backed organizations put their community at the centre of their decision-making — which is something that LSAS always does. One example of this is their YouTube channel, where the organization shares resources about violence prevention. Topics are decided based on the kinds of questions they receive from their clients. 

“We know that with sexual violence survivors, a lot of times they feel like they don’t have a voice,” Sinfield says. “We really try to hear what our community is saying, to be able to dispatch as much information and resources as we can.”

DD has deep ties with its community, too. “Every participant — that includes every mentor and every mentee — gives feedback every year, and then (our programs are) tweaked,” Walsh says. For the ECSF-funded program, DD invited mentors who had either written about gender-based violence before, or who worked in psychotherapy. “We sought input into making sure the program design was responsive (for writers),” Walsh adds. 

As with many community organizations, DD has a far higher demand for its services than what it can currently cater to. With ongoing funding, “we would deepen and broaden our ability to make sure what we’re offering is tailored to the individual woman or girl, versus having them fit into one of our existing programs,” Walsh says.

LSAS’ top priority is reducing wait times between client intakes – something that the ECSF funding helped with. “The thing with sexual violence (is that) we never know when it’s going to happen,” Sinfield says. “Any ongoing funding goes towards ensuring that (our) crisis response is effective and done in a real, timely manner.”

The need for crisis intervention won’t end with the pandemic. “We are seeing some really complex needs that are coming into play with sexual assault survivors, compounded by the fact that they’re stressed out by financials, employment, isolation,” Sinfield says. “We know that that’s not just going to go away once COVID is ‘done’.”

Looking to the future, DD’s aim is to support more victims of domestic violence in taking ownership of their story. “Silence and repression are corrosive — they contribute to intergenerational trauma,” Walsh says. “One way to break that cycle is through a writing experience to demystify who gender-based violence happens (to), in being seen for who you are, and for reclaiming voice through the process of writing” — something that will be just as vital beyond COVID-19.